The Artist Who Found His Voice in K-pop

Cha Sanggu #3

It’s obvious to see that the Hallyu fever has deeply impacted cultures nationwide as you see more and more non-Korean fans that actively express their love and fandom for K-pop and Korean culture. It is even to the point where there are sometimes even more non-Koreans auditioning to become K-pop stars in Korea. One unique artist from Canada who calls himself a “Synthetic Korean”, Cha Sanggu, is hoping to become just that and bring something new to the K-pop scene. With his impressive background in music by working with famous American artists such as the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes from TLC, Ed Roland of Collective Soul and the legendary Elton John, Cha is one artist that Korea should keep both eyes wide open for!

As Cha continues to develop his skills in both music and language, he is preparing to have an album ready to be released by the end of the year. The album is expected to feature 8 original tracks that have been created with the help and collaboration of his team “Team Sanggu,” which includes Grammy-nominated producer Ronnie King who is best known for his multi-platinum collaboration with the late Tupac Shakur and Korean poet Sangrim.

K-Herald had the opportunity to do an interview with Cha Sanggu as he introduced us with a preview of his music:

K-Herald: How did you come up with your Korean name “Cha Sanggu”?
Cha Sanggu: Shortly after I fell in love with Korean music and its culture, I was sitting with my close friend at my favorite Korean restaurant in Vancouver ‘Zabu Chicken’. We were talking about my new and seemingly insane goal of switching from rock & roll to K-pop in the blink of an eye. I brought up the fact that my real name would never work and I thought that if I was truly invested in my goal, I should be re-born with a Korean name. The sentence example in my Korean workbook was teaching me how to introduce myself and said, “Hello my name is Sanggu.” My friend looked at the sentence and then at the tea we were drinking and blurted out, “Cha Sanggu.” I loved it ever since and I never looked back.

KH: Can you tell us your real name?
CSG: As far as my real name, I’d rather keep it a secret and try to forget him. He’s very boring and doesn’t speak a word of Korean.

KH: How did you first come to know K-pop and Korean culture? What made you want to pursue a career as a K-pop artist instead of continuing to work in the American music industry?
CSG: After many years of travelling, recording and learning from the best in North America, my passion for what I was doing had gone a bit stale. I had been away from my family for too long, and despite the fact that I was working with some of the most successful and talented people of the time, everything I produced for my own projects left me. I moved from R&B when I started with Left-Eye (TLC) to my own version of rock music as I transitioned to working with Ed Roland (Collective Soul). Although we produced some good things, it lacked something that kept me searching for a new direction.

I had actually avoided the “Gangnam Style craze” that seemed to have already mesmerized the planet for the longest time. I was playing with a 7-piece band in Vancouver doing Motown covers just to stay fresh, and actually had started to find all the parodies and constant references to ’Gangnam Style’ super annoying. One day, I decided it’s time I got with the times and took a listen to this Psy character and see for myself what was going on.

I pulled up ‘Gangnam Style’ on YouTube and watched the music video. As soon as I watched it, it energized me in a way I never experienced before – like I was a powerless cell phone that had never been charged and was plugged in for the first time. I watched it over and over again until I lost track of time, and must have watched it for nearly 4 hours straight. Somewhere in the middle of the marathon, I became obsessed with what he was saying, and how he was saying it. The rhymes I was hearing and the words themselves although meaningless for me, felt like dominoes falling from start to finish, each one falling perfectly after the next.

Somewhere around what I can only imagine was the 2000th time listening to the song, I pulled up the lyrics and a Romanized version of the lyrics so I could sing along with it. I’m pretty certain it was at the end of the spell that I or something in my head decided: this is it! I must learn this language and express myself through this music; it was the instrument I had been waiting for.

I went immediately went into a store, bought a web-cam and stuck it on top of my monitor. I started searching for K-pop songs that had the lyrics Romanized and came quickly across a great song by IU. Without much work on it, I found an instrumental version, pulled up the lyrics and did my best to record myself singing her beautiful song. I uploaded the video on YouTube and I went on to watch basic introduction videos on Hangul and the alphabet until I passed out. I woke up the next day to find that my video had about 16,000 views and was super excited and somewhat disturbed. I had never done a show before more than 3,000 people and now five times that many had watched me butcher not only IU’s beautiful song, but the masterpiece of Sejong the Great as I misheard and mispronounced nearly every word in the song. By the end of the day, the views were at around 30,000 and kept going throughout the week to over 100,000 views. I had already decided I was going to do it, but this felt like a sign to me that there is a light to follow. I have since destroyed that video because as my Korean got better, my horror for what I had done increased. I asked forgiveness from King Sejong as I deleted it and started my journey of learning Hangul properly.

KH: How would you describe your music and how do you make your songs to captivate Korean fans?
CSG: It took me a long time to find my own true voice. As a singer and I can only assume in any artistic craft, it begins with emulating others which I certainly did. Taking small pieces from all those who inspired created the blueprint for my own unique instrument. My music is a vital part of my existence, and directly from my heart. It’s an echo of all the experiences in my life and the result of decades of hard work. My experience has been that of anything born from the truth and feel that it can touch a great number of people. Regardless of nationality, financial status, religion or otherwise, when I talk to people around the world, I see that the ups and downs of life are often very similar, each in its own way. I aspire for my music to be genuine and enjoyable with an eye on the world we live in as I see it. Even though it’s been more than a decade since I created the blueprint for Cha Sanggu, I was never able to construct an effective instrument from it; it wasn’t until I found Psy that I realized that the instructions were all in Hangul. I’ve built it now, and I’ve modified it with a bit of influences from K-pop artists I admire and I’m taking it with me to Korea. How K-pop fans will react, I’m not sure, but hopefully we will soon see.

KH: Who are some of your Korean celebrity role models?
CSG: Historically, King Sejong the Great is, of course. I put him among all the other great artists who inspire me like Mozart, Tupac, Joseph Campbell and many others. One of my favorite K-pop artists is Psy because besides being so talented, he is Cha Sanggu’s father. G-Dragon is also a favorite for his creativity and daring nature, 4-Minute is so entertaining and awesome, and Shin Yeong-jae’s vocal ability is truly inspiring. If I ever find out who first created or brought gochugaru (red pepper) to Korea, I would add that person to the list of role models. Imagine a world without spicy, red kimchi. I don’t know how I went through life before without gochujang as I dip it into almost everything I eat, especially pizza!

Yuna Hwang